Minehunters HMS Chiddingfold and Penzance knuckled down to their first test – within a week of arriving in their home for the next three years.
Barely had the two ships completed the demanding 6,000-mile journey from Portsmouth and Faslane to Bahrain than they were back at sea for a testing eight-day workout.
The two ships joined US forces and the UK’s minehunting mother/command ship RFA Cardigan Bay for the latest in a series of Anglo-American exercises which ensure the two navies’ mine warfare forces are the very tip of the spear.
The Gulf waters off Bahrain – which is the hub of both US and Royal Navy operations in the Middle East – were littered with dummy mines and contacts ready for the participants to find them.
Joining the two British warships in the hunt was their American counterpart USS Dextrous, American explosive ordnance disposal technicians (similar to Royal Navy clearance divers) and huge HM-53E Sea Dragons – for which the UK has no equivalent; the helicopters pull minesweeping sleds or sonar through the water.
For the new arrivals it was a chance to acclimatise both to Gulf conditions and to working side-by-side with the US Navy so that both can work seamlessly together in the event of a major incident.
The exercise consisted of realistic mine hunting simulations as mine warfare teams practised detecting and classifying training aids shaped like mines – typically using sonar and the Seafox remote-controlled submersible – and then neutralising them, again using Seafox (which carries an explosive charge) or by putting divers in the water to manually place charges and detonate devices safely.
All of which is standard minehunting/exercise fare. For an added frisson, the US Navy sent in its Mark VI Patrol Boats to see how the force defended itself.
Minehunters are slow – 17kts top speed – and minehunting operations especially so as the ships crawl along at a couple of knots on safety grounds.
The patrol boats are nearly three times faster and armed with 25mm chain guns which, in theory, can tear chunks out of the hunter’s glass-plastic hulls… or crew, but the Brits fought back with 30mm cannon, Miniguns and SA80s.
Commanding the British and US minehunters from RFA Cardigan Bay was Commander Richard Talbot, who is responsible for the RN’s mine warfare assets in the Gulf.
The value the US Navy places on the RN’s mine warfare expertise is underscored by the fact that the deputy commander of its minehunters in Bahrain – collectively Combined Task Force 52 – is a Briton, Captain Donald Crosbie.
“With almost 30 years working in the Navy’s mine clearance specialism, it is good to be sharing my experience with our US partners within Task Force 52,” he said. “It’s particularly special to be working with HMS Penzance again, a ship that I commanded in 2003.”